Technology and Play

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Jeffrey H. Goldstein (2013), Scholarpedia, 8(2):30434. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.30434 revision #152335 [link to/cite this article]
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Curator: Jeffrey H. Goldstein

The world of iPods, mobile telephones, portable wireless computers, and devices of every description, including toys that contain computer chips, memory, voice recognition, and interactive connectivity has forever changed the landscape of play. User-generated content allows players not only to play, but to shape the games they play, and by so doing shape the effects that play has on them. Play is defined, following Huizinga (1950), as a voluntary activity standing outside ‘ordinary’ life, being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely. Technology is used here to refer to electronic and digital objects.


Integration of Technology and Play

Toys, games, and electronic media are merging into a seamless blend of entertainment, information, education, and play. From music boxes, crying dolls, kaleidoscopes, and stereoscopes to electric trains, remote controlled vehicles, and robots, toys have always reflected the latest economically viable developments in science and technology. The idea of mixing play, technology, and learning is hardly new. Throughout history toys have inducted children into the practices and values of their society. Technological developments of the 21st century have led to a shift in which familiarity with electronic and digital equipment is essential for success in both leisure and work. In their everyday lives, children come across barcode scanners in supermarkets, mobile telephones, portable computers, cash dispensers, and parking lot ticket machines, all of which confront them with modern technology. Electronic toys and digital games are the child’s first hands-on introduction to this world, giving children an opportunity to learn about technology as well as with technology.

Smart toys

‘Smart toys’ contain embedded electronics that appear to have the capacity to adapt to the abilities or actions of the player. Tamagotchi (BanDai) was the first smart toy, appearing in 1996. The Tamagotchi was programmed to be 'nurtured' by a child. In 1997 Furby (Tiger Electronics) appeared, followed by other interactive toys including Poo-Chi, Interactive Barney, and Me Barbie. Today’s smart toys may include speech recognition software, touch or motion sensors, and the ability to be networked together with other smart toys or a PC or mobile phone. There is little research on whether ‘smart’ toys and digital games increase children’s cognitive or social skills, although some toys and games are designed with these goals in mind.

Many traditional toys are found in multiple media and embodiments. Action Man, Batman, and Thomas the Tank Engine exist as toys, as interactive computer games, in illustrated books, in animated videos, and as downloadable apps. Although toys may come with programmed responses, they are not used only in pre-scripted ways. When playing with smart toys, children do not always discover their full functionality. This limited discovery may be due to the geometrical layout of the toy or interfaces, software complexities, ambiguous feedback, or, a toy appears similar to one the user had previously encountered. Bergen (2004) observed boys and girls ages 3 to 5 years while playing with ‘talking’ (computer-chip enhanced) and ‘non-talking’ Rescue Heroes figures (firemen, police officers). After an initial exploratory period, most of the children used the toys in similar ways. The children with speech-enabled toys repeated some phrases and sounds that the toy made and initially activated the sound/talk mechanisms, but in their free play most of them used actions and language narratives similar to those of the children with the non-talking toys.

Prevalence of Technology in Play for Children and Adults

Surveys report that adolescents spend from 3–4 hours/day watching TV, and from 1–2 hours/day playing videogames. The average age of videogamers is steadily rising and now approaches 30 years of age ( In one nationwide American survey, boys age 8 to 18 played videogames an average of 16.4 hours/week while girls played 9.2 hours (Gentile 2009).

According to a 2011 U.S. survey of 1,348 parents (, half of children under 8 had access to a mobile device like a smartphone, a video iPod, or an iPad or other tablet. Television still accounts for the largest share of children's screen time: about half of children under 2 watch TV or DVDs on a typical day, according to the survey. Infants to 8 year olds watch TV/videos 1 hour 44 minutes/day, computer or videogames 25 minutes/day and computers 6 minutes/day. Among all children under 2, the average is 53 minutes a day of television or DVDs. In a typical day, 11% of all 0 to 8 year olds use a cell phone, iPod, iPad or similar device for media consumption. Among those children who play console videogames, the average age at first use was 3 years 11 months. Among 5 to 8 year olds, 17% play console videogames at least once a day, and another 36% play them at least once a week. More than half of all 5 to 8 year olds have used a smartphone, video iPod, iPad or similar device to play games or use other apps. Computers are common as well: about 12 percent of children 2 to 4 use them every day, and 24 percent at least once a week, the study found; among those age 5 to 8, 22 percent use a computer daily, 46 percent more than once a week.

Williams, Yee, and Caplan (2008) surveyed 7,000 players of EverQuest 2, a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), and collected in-game data on their behaviors. The researchers compared gamers to the general population in terms of physical and mental health. Among all players, the mean hours played per week was 26. Gamers were primarily adult (31.2 years old on average), male (80% ), white, and middle class. EQ2 players are healthier than the general population. EQ2 players have an average BMI (body mass index) of 25, making them slightly overweight, but less so than the average American adult, who has a BMI of 28. Twenty-two percent of EQ2 players are technically obese, compared to 31% of American adults. On average, EQ2 players describe their health as slightly better than ‘‘good’’ and report engaging in vigorous exercise between one and two times a week. EQ2 players have a higher rate of physical impairments than the general population, 9.5% vs. 7.3%. Twenty-three percent of EQ2 players reported having been diagnosed with depression. It is possible that game play created these outcomes, but it is equally possible that people who are depressed are more likely to seek out MMOs. EverQuest 2 players’ media data was compared with national data to explore what activities were displaced by game play. The most apparent difference lies in the number of hours spent watching television vs. playing online. EQ2 players spent 22 hours per week watching television, compared to 32 per week for the general population. It seems that game play takes time away predominantly from television viewing.

Learning To Play with Technology

Until around age two years, flat screens do not hold much interest to a child, and the child’s limited fine motor control makes using computers and electronic game devices difficult. Preschoolers, age three to five, increasingly realize their ability to influence events on a screen, and use and pretend using cell phones and computers. From ages 6 to 12 the full plethora of contemporary media becomes available. The child’s ability to reason logically makes strategy games appealing at this age, and with growing communication and social skills comes heightened interest in multi-player games, cell phones, and social networking (Lauricella et al. 2009).

Digital games seem to have the same basic functions as other media in serving adolescents’ mood management, stimulation seeking, social relationships, and self-presentation. The challenge and mastery that accompany play and games, involvement, and opportunities for social contact, both during and after play online and on the playground, are all powerful attractors. Motivations for playing videogames vary with age and developmental stage (Olson 2010). The reasons play is initiated affect the outcomes of that play (Przybylski et al. 2010).

Advances in Rapid-Prototyping technology have significantly impacted the cost and size of 3D printers. At the projected rate, 3D printers would become as ubiquitous as ink and laser desktop devices. Current technology allows the user to design in a virtual environment to create objects in the real world. Children would be able to model their own playthings, which incorporate complex mechanisms and colours, and the designs could be built at home or transmitted to friends to build.

Learning Through Play with Technology

Technology enhanced toys change the affordances of traditional toys, such as dolls that 'talk', objects which interact remotely, and produce new playthings with different affordances, such as the Nintendo Wii. Playing with electronic toys and digital games complement but do not replace the valuable activities and materials of early childhood, such as sand, blocks, books and storytelling, art and crafts, board games, movement and dance, and dramatic play. Technology broadens the range of play possibilities but does not replace any.

Benefits of play with technology

Digital games are fast and responsive, and can be played against real people anywhere in the world, or against a computer. They handle huge amounts of content and can be instantly updated and customized by individual players. Computer games incorporate many learning principles by putting learners in the role of decision-maker, confronting them through ever harder challenges, and engaging the player in experimenting with different ways of learning and thinking. Well-produced simulation games encourage visualization, experimentation, and creativity in finding new ways to tackle the game. Young people’s everyday uses of computer games and the Internet involve a range of informal learning processes. Children learn to use these media largely through trial and error — through exploration, experimentation, and play; and collaboration with others, both in face-to-face and virtual forms. Electronic game playing is a ‘multi-literate’ activity: it often involves interpreting complex three-dimensional visual environments, reading both on-screen and off-screen texts (such as games magazines and websites) and processing auditory information. In computer games, success derives from the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Young people have to learn to ‘read’ subtle nuances, often on the basis of minimal cues. They have to learn the rules and etiquette of online communication, and to shift quickly between genres or language registers. Provided they are sensible about divulging personal information, chat rooms and social networking sites provide young people with a safe arena for rehearsing and exploring aspects of identity and personal relationships that may not be available elsewhere (Jansz 2006). Simulation games enable activities otherwise too costly or too dangerous, difficult, or impractical to implement in the classroom. Gaming expertise is linked to executive functioning, self-monitoring, pattern recognition, problem solving, decision making, qualitative thinking, and superior short-term and long-term memory (Gee 2003, Shaffer 2008). As all toys do, electronic toys and digital games keep children on task for a longer period of time, giving whatever benefits they may offer a greater probability of materializing.

Critiques of technology play

Objections to using electronic games and smart toys in the classroom are that they limit the child’s imagination, and may lead to addiction, social isolation, and aggressive behavior. The evidence to support these positions is equivocal. The controversies surrounding violent media content or addiction to videogames are not addressed here. For conflicting positions on the violent content issue see Anderson et al. (2007), Ferguson (2010), Goldstein (2005), Grimes et al. (2008). Differing positions on addiction to videogames and the Internet can be found in Gentile (2009) and Kutner and Olson (2008).

Using technology in play to promote learning

Recently there has been a surge of computer game based products that claim to integrate play and learning under the banner of ‘edutainment.’ Other software is offered as 'brain training.' According to Resnick (2006), these [edutainment products] often miss the spirit of play. Research is beginning to emerge evaluating the effectiveness of 'serious games' and edutainment for learning (see Ma et al. 2011).

The cognitive processes involved in play are similar to those involved in all learning: motivation, meaning, repetition, self-regulation, and higher-order information processing. Young pre-readers or early readers, ages three to five, may benefit from electronic toys that provide spoken instructions and reading help. Book readers allow the child to touch a page or a word to hear letters, words, or entire stories read aloud. Computers, smart toys, and other new media have the potential to facilitate language development if parents mediate the experience, for example labeling objects, asking questions, repeating dialogue, and describing the content (Weber 2006).

Play with traditional building blocks promotes language, cognitive schema, and impulse control (Christakis et al. 2007). Manipulating blocks on a computer screen, as in Tetris, may promote the same abilities. Computerized blocks were devised by Itoh et al. (2005), using a simple interface that requires no computer expertise. Shapes in the physical environment are then represented on a screen, enabling users to interact with cyberspace via these physical objects. First, using a set of computerized blocks, children construct a shape with which they want to play in cyberspace. The computer automatically recognizes the constructed structure in real time, and then retrieves 3D virtual models closely matching the constructed structure. Children then play the virtual model’s multimedia contents. Children can play in cyberspace while manipulating the constructed object in their hands.

Hi-tech toys and the child’s imagination

Many critics contend that children are no longer able to engage in authentic, spontaneous play, that the narratives, symbols, and scenarios of their pretend play have been taken over by the media, depriving children of the opportunity to develop their imagination and autonomy (see Levin and Rosenquest 2001, Marsh 2002). The concern is that technology will displace more desirable activities, like outdoor play, reading, or socializing with friends, and there is some support for this view (Kline 2004, Valkenburg and Peter 2009). Yet much research suggests that children are far from being passive recipients of media. In their play and games, children actively appropriate cultural commodities, making their own discriminations and judgments, while combining and reworking them in myriad ways.

Researchers have explored whether children who play with electronic toys play less creatively or imaginatively than children who play with more traditional toys — blocks and dolls, paper and crayons — that do not involve electronics. Although there is insufficient research to provide a clear answer, the concerns do not seem to be justified (Bergen 2004, Plowman et al. 2010). In one experiment, 6–8 year-old children displayed the same reasoning skills and performed similarly (required the same number of moves for the solution) whether a task was in the form of a board game or a computer game (Ko 2002). A review by Russ and Dillon (2011) found no decrease in children's imagination or creativity in the period 1985-2008. They found that imagination in play and comfort with play significantly increased over time. There was no evidence of change in organization of the story or in overall expression of affect in play. Among 12-year-olds videogame playing was strongly related to creativity (Jackson et al. 2012). Even though children have less time to play, cognitive processes that occur in play continue to develop. Research on television and children’s imaginative play finds that the content, but not the quantity, of fantasy is affected by program content. Contemporary play objects, by virtue of their electronic functions and affordances, invite exploration and discovery. According to Resnick (2006) “today’s technology can open new opportunities for children to playfully explore, experiment, design, and invent.”

Götz et al. (2005) conducted a multi-national study of the fantasy worlds of eight- to ten-year-old children in Germany, Israel, South Korea, and the U.S. Children build upon a wealth of information gathered from a wide range of sources, including their own personal experience and media, and freely interweave them to create rich fantasy backdrops for play. Some children stayed fairly close to the original media script in their fantasy play. “This raises the question of whether such media texts inhibit children’s imagination, so that there is less originality and more imitation in the fantasy. According to our study, this is the exception rather than the rule… Contrary to popular belief, children make sophisticated use of these mediated worlds. They mix and match settings and specific objects within them in ways that facilitate their own fantasy worlds and allow them to best experience their wishes in these worlds. They highlight and expand on those aspects of the original media worlds that are particularly attractive to them and adapt or erase those that hinder or are not relevant to the wished for experience. One might say they play the role of editor… ” (Götz et al. 2005 , pp. 197-199).

Videogames and learning

Games have been used both to promote and to study learning, memory, attention, self-esteem, motivation, cognitive processes, and spatial abilities. Games have taught reading, vocabulary, and math to elementary school pupils, and health care and safe sexual practices to adolescents (Kato 2010). Designing games is also regarded as a form of digital literacy entailing new approaches to deal with information and representation (Owston et al. 2009).

Results of game-based learning are not always consistent. For instance, in one study, kindergarten children performed better on language tests, but not on math (Din and Calao 2001 ), while in another study with first and second grade pupils, significant results were obtained for math, but not for language (Rosas et al. 2003 ).

Between 2000 and 2005 approximately 450,000 students graduated annually in the United States with an undergraduate degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (Mayo 2009 ). These numbers pale in comparison to the reach of a single computer videogame, such as World of Warcraft, a fantasy game with over 12 million subscribers. According to Mayo, videogames can yield a 7% to 40% positive learning increase over a lecture. Videogames allow the player control over navigation, which enhances learning. Game-based learning often requires the formation of hypotheses, experimentation, and discovery, the very bases of science. Furthermore, games invite more time spent on the (learning) task. Assessment of game-based learning allows one to track sequences of actions and communications and relate these to more complex skills and abilities. Game-based learning has the potential to deliver science and math education to millions of users simultaneously. Some games have been developed with the goal of teaching science, for example, Food Force, a game produced for the United Nations on the mechanics of food aid distribution, which had 4 million players in its first year [1]. Designed for ages 8 to 13, Food Force is designed to teach history, geography, social studies, and mathematics.

Playing videogames promotes a variety of visual skills (tracking, object rotation) and abstract thinking (Spence and Feng 2010). Electronic games have been among the most successful means for reducing the typically reported sex differences in spatial abilities (Dye et al. 2009).

Games and Health

As early as 1991, Kinder could write that videogames “have considerable educational and therapeutic value for a diverse range of groups — including adolescents, athletes, would be pilots, the elderly in old age homes, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, stroke victims, quadriplegics, and young children suffering from palsy, brain damage, and Down’s syndrome” (p. 112).

Play has long been used in child clinical psychology and pediatrics as a diagnostic tool and therapeutic treatment for physical and emotional trauma. There is now sufficient development and research on games for health to justify a journal (Games for Health. Hi-tech forms of play and videogames are increasingly used with both children and adults in a growing variety of health care settings to impart information, promote adherence to exercise and medical regimens, and even for training physicians. Games have aided in the management of weight loss and dieting, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma (Kato 2010, Lieberman 2009). Mobile phone games have recently showed promise in generating positive health outcomes. Mobile games have been used to increase physical exercise, improve diet adherence and increase awareness about health and unhealthy foods (e.g., Byrne et al. 2012).

Special needs populations

Because games and programmable toys can be adapted easily to the user’s specifications, videogames and hi-tech toys have been altered for a variety of populations with particular requirements or limitations. NASA developed videogames that use biofeedback to train pilots to stay alert during long flights and calm during emergencies. Signals from sensors attached to the player and body are fed through a signal-processing unit to a videogame joystick. As the player’s brainwaves approach an optimal, stress-free pattern, the joystick becomes easier to control. The technology is now commercially available, and is used to treat symptoms arising from brain injuries, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning disabilities. The system allows off-the-shelf videogames, such as racing games, to be controlled through brain wave activity. Videogames can be controlled using many forms of biofeedback, including galvanic skin response (GSR), heart rate, and temperature (Mason et al. 2004).


Exergames are videogames that require gross motor activity, thereby combining gaming with physical activity. Exergames are a substitute for physical exercise when outdoor play is not feasible, as in inclement weather (Peng et al., 2011). According to a study by Graves et al. (2007), playing new generation active computer games uses significantly more energy than playing sedentary computer games but not as much energy as playing the sport itself. The energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of sufficient intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children.

Videogames and the elderly

For the elderly, the main cognitive abilities that change over time are perception, attention, memory, and executive functioning. Studies of the non-institutionalized elderly suggest that digital games can speed reaction time, and may positively influence executive function, and have social, and emotional benefits (Kueider et al. 2012).

Using Technology to Study Play

New technologies are quickly adopted as research tools in the study of play. Videogames and [digital] toys have been used to study and develop perception, cognition, and motivation. Cell phones and inexpensive digital cameras, global positioning systems, robotics, and eye-tracking technology have all been used to study play and children's toy preferences (Alexander et al. 2009, Campolo et al. 2011, Mikkelsen and Christensen 2009). Handheld portable game devices have much to recommend them as psychological tests. The equipment is robust, inexpensive, small, light, and portable. Jones (1984) used two electronic toys, Simon Says and Split Second, to measure short-term memory, reaction time, and pattern recognition during a mountaineering expedition.

Where people play and with whom is increasingly virtual and remote, and this trend is likely to continue. At the same time, new technologies free us from chairs and computer screens to allow mobile and active play, virtual and otherwise.


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Suggested reading

  • Jeffrey Goldstein. (2011). Technology and play. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play. Oxford University Press.
  • Lisa Witherspoon and John P. Manning. (2012). Active gaming: The future of play? American Journal of Play, 4 (4), 464-487.

[adapted from Goldstein 2011]

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